Remembering the Catch!
I for one am happy to say The Catch Game was the most exciting day in my life. Now to say that a football game was the source of the Most Exciting Day in your Life seems kinda lame but I can’t help it its true. As a fan who attended every 49er home game and a few on the road from the time I got out of the Navy in 1977 to 1993 when I moved out of town, I have witnessed the worst of the 49ers and the very best of the 49ers. I was witness to the Monte Clark era, I was around when the Niners got Jim Plunkett from New England. I was here when Eddie D. bought the team hired GM Joe (go to hell)Thomas and fired the popular head coach Monte Clark. We sat by as Joe Thomas dismantled a league leading defensive line that consisted to Tommy Hart, Cedrick Hardman, Cleveland Elam and Jimmy Webb, he sent Jim Plunkett to The Raiders so he could finally win a Super Bowl, he replaced him with the not so great Steve DeBerg (our so called future) and made one of the worst trades in 49er history. Thomas traded a boatload of draft pics for an over the hill O.J. Simpson, O.J. never even made it through the season, Joe Thomas was responsible for a time in 49er lore known as the”No Name Era” or “The Dark Ages” it was painful to be a 49er fan during those years. I remember sitting, dejected in the roll outs after another 49er loss (2 and 12 in 78) at one point I actually said “God please let us go to the playoffs just once before I die”
Now I’m here to tell you praying does work either that or God is a 49er fan. As a gift for the 1979 season he sent us a white haired Wise Man bearing a plan, new plays and the wisdom to realize God’s other begotten son… Joe.. who was playing for the fighting Irish of Notre Dame (Gods other team) at the time, would indeed be the messiah that would lead our beleaguered 49ers to the promised land. This White Haired wise man’s wisdom and the ensuing ground work that he laid would eventually lead us to the fabled One for the Thumb.
As a diehard 49er fan the 1981 season was almost surreal. It began in 1980 against The Saints, Steve DeBerg was as usual having one of his abysmal games and the Saints were leading 35 or something to nothing. Bill (the white haired wise man) had already voiced his frustration with Steve DeBerg’s penchant for turning what would look like a beautiful comeback into a gut wrenching loss, He seemed to have a knack for throwing end zone interceptions, anyway he yanks DeBerg, enter the then second year QB (genuflect, hallelujah voices from heaven) Joe Montana who proceeded to lead the 49ers to a 38 to 35 win in what was the greatest comeback in 49er and at the time NFL history. They finished the season a dismal 6 and 10 but there appeared to be promise, our offense could finally score now we just needed a real NFL defense.
Ask and ye shall receive, in 1981 Bill Walsh (the wise one) drafted Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, and Carlton Williamson, these guys with the already 49er Dwight Hicks became one of the most formidable secondaries in NFL history and almost instantly added legitimacy to a struggling 49er D. On Offensive side of the ball Joe Montana seemed to have a calming effect on the team, he was like a instant shot of confidence, his ability to remain cool when everything seemed to be going to Hell in a Handbasket earned him the nickname Joe Cool. (think that was a Chronicle headline) The 81 season began with a rocky start the 9ers lost 2 of their first 3 games but then seemed to right the ship and put together a string of 7 straight wins including crushing the hated Dallas Cowboys at the Stick. As a 49er fan used to years of disappointment my skepticism began to give way to belief and after the dismantling of the Cowboys (it still pisses me off getting snubbed by Howard Cosell and his highlights segment on Monday Night Football) then going to Three Rivers and out slugging the notorious hard hitting Steelers for a win, I really began to believe. To me the Steeler game was the now famous secondary of Hicks, Lott, Williamson, and Wright’s(Dwight Hicks and his Hot Licks) introduction to the NFL. SF was abuzz the fans excitement was now reaching epic proportions. The 49ers secondary was punishing people. In my opinion the secondary in addition to the late signings of Fred Dean and Hacksaw Reynolds were the key factors to the 49ers success, they would end up as the number 4 defense in the NFL that year. I was so jacked that I jumped on a train to Anaheim to watch the Niners play the Rams and after watching them win a shootout against Feragamo and the Super Bowl losing Rams, needless to say after that game I was fully hitched to the 49er band wagon. To this day 1981 reigns supreme as my all time best year betting football.
Whew! This has got to be the longest intro to Remembering The Catch ever but because I said it was the most “exciting day to my life” I feel the need to qualify myself. Anyway after whomping the Giants in the first game of the playoffs and having the occasion to meet the then QB for Stanford John Elway and getting his autograph in the parking lot the final seeding for the playoffs was set. The Championship Game would see a rematch with the hated and dreaded Dallas Cowboys. Could we beat them two times in one year? Was the trouncing we gave them in the regular season game a fluke? These were exciting times if you were a Niner fan in the Bay Area.
The lead up to the Game was the typical media frenzy and most of the so called experts picked the Dallas Cowboys, after all the 49ers running game consisted of a cast of thousands names like Patton, Easley, Elliot, Lawrence, Cooper and Ring, they even had a guy “Johnny Davis” that they used almost exclusively on goal line situations just to get into the end zone, I think he rushed for 9 TD’s that year. Their receivers were a bunch of no names only Freddie Solomon from the Dolphins seemed respectable, Dwight Clark was a second year 8th round pick from Clemson that while untested seemed to have a rapport with Joe, their tight ends were Eason (who?) Ramson and the old as hell but very effective Charlie Young from the Rams, it was like good luck how were these guys gonna ever beat the already pissed Dallas Cowboys and the likes of Tom Landry, Danny White, Drew Pearson, Butch Johnson, Tony Dorsett, Billy Jo DuPree, Ed Too Tall Jones, Harvey Martin… the list goes on… I’m getting depressed just thinking about who was on that Cowboys team. No way were the Niners gonna beat these guys twice in the same season and most especially in The Championship Game.
After a glorious tailgate party of marinated crab Bloody Mary’s and lots of hootin and hollerin my entrance to the stick was anything but what I was prepared for. The place was packed, there seemed to be way more people than I had ever seen at a game, keeping in mind I had been to every game since 1977, the energy, electricity, excitement… Hell call it what you want was almost overwhelming the hairs are standing on the back of my neck just sitting here thinking about it. The game was a blur I remember the Niners turning the ball over 6 times and each time they turned it over I remember saying they can’t keep turning the ball over and expect to win. The crowd would go from completely insane to so silent you could hear a pin drop to this day and umpteen sporting events later I have yet to witness anything quite like it. Too be in a stadium with 62,000 some odd people and to hear nothing is eerie to say the least. To experience the emotional highs and lows that game had to offer with 62,000 other people is a charge I have yet to experience nor do I think I will ever experience again, it was almost a relief when the game ended, one of those Thank God it’s over cause I might have a freaking heart attack moments. The Game after 6 turnovers and countless harrowing experiences came down to the Cowboys leading 27 to 21 with 4:54 or something on the clock, the Niners had the ball on their own 11, the planet including Tom Landry and the Cowboys expected Joe Montana to pass the ball, Landry pulls his linebackers and goes to his nickle package. So what does Walsh do?… He calls on Lenvil Elliot a veteran running back and Bengals castoff 3 out of the first five plays of the drive. Three running plays a end around and 2 passes later the Niners were on the Cowboy’s 13 with 58 seconds to go. The Stick was literally going nuts the excitement level was beyond belief if you could have harnessed the energy in that stadium you could have run the lights in the City for at least a day, nobody and I mean nobody was sitting down. From my vantage point which was section 51 upper deck at the rail, I had a perfect view of the corner of the end zone that Dwight was to make the now infamous Catch. As the play unfolded from my view it looked as though Joe was gonna get sacked the O line was beaten, Ed Too Tall Jones looked as if he was ready to clean Joe’s clock and there appeared to be no one open in the end zone. Joe was on the run and let loose a pass that I thought he was throwing away,
I remember my relief thinking good at least he got rid of it, then I see Dwight Clark leap over the top of Everson Walls to make a spectacular catch, from my view point I thought he was out of bounds, I don’t know If I saw the ref signal the TD or if the crowd going nuts confirmed the TD, those seconds after The Catch are still hazy, all I can say for sure is everybody was hugging everybody, there were high fives around until my hands were sore, my voice was gone,The Stick was in a state of absolute bedlam. The Niners kicked the extra point and took the lead 28 to 27 with 51 seconds to go, the place was going absolutely insane. The Niners lined up kicked off and with something like 49 seconds on the clock the Cowboys took over. The stadium was still buzzing people were still standing, we were all talking about finally going to the Super Bowl and what a great victory this was, then to our horror Danny White hit Drew Pearson with a pass on the Cowboy’s first play from scrimmage had it not been for Eric Wright dragging Pearson down by his shirt tail he would have scored an easy touchdown and a likely as per usual last minute Dallas win. Needless to say the Stick went from a loud buzz to deathly silent, once again you could hear a pin drop that sinking feeling was gnawing at the gut of every 49er fan in the house. All we could think was… Oh no they’re gonna do it to us again. The Cowboys were poised to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, how could this happen? Here they were, on one play the stinking Cowboys were in 49er territory with 43 seconds to go, an eternity in the NFL, Rafael Septien one of the best kickers in the NFL at the time was drooling on the side lines. The Cowboys had 43 seconds to go 20 yards for an easy field goal a win and another trip to the Super Bowl. Then it happened, call it divine Intervention, great D, a lucky break, whatever, on the second play from scrimmage in 49er territory Lawrence Pillars hammered Danny White and caused a fumble which Jim Stuckey fell on thus sealing the victory and signaling the beginning the 49er dynasty. Needless to say the place went nuts, people stormed the field, people hugged, gave high fives and drenched each other with beer. From my vantage point on the upper deck the field looked to be crawling with ants. Fact is I was so excited I ran down to the field level and was standing on the left field bullpen. I was trying to decide if I should jump down on the field to join the melee but a Burns Guard whose job I guess was to keep people off the field ( Dude look behind you) was waving his finger at me saying no don’t do it… I couldn’t resist.. I gave into the crowd mentality jumped onto the field and started running toward the crowd… there’s like 20,000 people on the field behind this guy and he decides he is gonna tackle me.. ya right! at the time I’m like 6’4″ and weigh about 280 I run over him like Johnny Davis on route to one of his 9 touchdowns but the 3 SFPD officers behind him put the hammer down got me to the ground and start trying to beat my ass, instead of fighting back I just roll over and say “Go ahead and kill me cause you know I’m dying happy”. They start laughing, let me up, give me high fives and send me on my way. (True Story) Love the Niners and Thanks for the Memories.